My Ideal Dinner Party: Alexander von Humboldt

” The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” -Alexander von Humboldt

Have you ever considered your answer to the classic question about who you would invite, alive or dead, to your ideal dinner party? I made my decision about one of my guests this week after researching Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). I decided to research this scientist after I learned from the academic journal “Hispanic American Historical Review” that Humboldt’s American travel journals have been fully digitized.

Humboldt was a naturalist and explorer, born in Berlin, which was part of the Kingdom of Prussia at that time. Although he traveled in Europe, Siberia and Central Asia, his most famous trip was to the Americas from 1799-1804. There he traveled through rain forests and climbed mountains, all while scientifically studying…everything.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, 1806, by artist Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1758-1828). Photo: avh.de via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, 1806, by artist Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1758-1828). Photo: avh.de via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists didn’t specialize then as they do now. During his lifetime he studied botany, geology, geography, biology, anatomy, climate, ocean currents and astronomy. I’m sure I’m missing something in that list, but that curiosity about everything is why he would be a great dinner guest.

Chiranthodendron pentadactylon, by Alexander von Humboldt, via Wikimedia Commons

Chiranthodendron pentadactylon, by Alexander von Humboldt, via Wikimedia Commons

While in the Americas he collected specimens, mapped rivers and mountains, and left drawings of plants and animals he encountered. He even met with President Thomas Jefferson. When he returned to Europe, Humboldt published a 34-volume account of his American travels, including his Personal Narratives.

Anatomie des Axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum by Alexander von Humboldt via Wikimedia Commons

Anatomie des Axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum by Alexander von Humboldt via Wikimedia Commons

During his long career he was an inspiration to other scientists, like Charles Darwin, but also to naturalist writers and poets, like Henry David Thoreau. Humboldt was a celebrity, famous and revered in his own time. You’ve probably been to or heard of something that has been named for him. That list includes rivers, mountain ranges, bays, waterfalls, towns, parks, counties, plants, animals, a glacier, an asteroid, an ocean current, and an area on the moon.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, Verlag von L. Haase & Co. in Berlin, circa 1857, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt,
Verlag von L. Haase & Co. in Berlin, circa 1857, via Wikimedia Commons

What I find interesting now, in light of all that has changed in the past 200 years of scientific study, is an idea that could make him an hero to modern environmentalists. The foundation of Humboldt’s scientific studies was the idea that everything is interconnected. He saw deforestation in Venezuela and realized that there was a cause and effect relationship between humans and nature. He saw that the effects of deforestation impacted plants, animals and people. He believed that human actions would impact climate for future generations. Because all of nature is connected.

I would love to be able to share some dinner conversation with Humboldt. I just have to wait for other scientists to figure out that whole time travel thing.

Please follow and like us:
This entry was posted in Stories by Cathy Hanson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Cathy Hanson

I’m a military brat and grew up on Air Force bases around the world. I discovered my love for history when I was 14 years old and the U.S. Air Force transferred my family to a base in England. Traveling from castles to cathedrals to ruins to cities, I felt the stories of these places and understood that history is not solely about events whose dates we are required to memorize. History is stories. My passion for those stories led me to a master’s degree in history.

Please feel free to comment, ask questions, supply answers, or tell me your favorite history resource or artifact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *